Julianna Pena ready to take the ‘face of women’s MMA’ label

DENVER — First there was Gina Carano. Ronda Rousey then took the moniker and ran longer with it than anyone could have imagined.

While Rousey hasn’t officially made any decision about her future, two knockout losses have left the door open for a new star to emerge as the so-called “face of female fighting.”

Julianna Pena is willing to take the job and checks all the required boxes.

She is a beast inside the cage and a sharp-tongued beauty who embraces the spotlight outside it.

Her first headlining spot on a UFC card will be on network TV on Saturday, a women’s bantamweight top contender bout against Valentina Shevchenko in the main event of UFC on Fox 23 at Pepsi Center that could help to determine if she is ready to fill the role.

The bout is part of a main card that includes a welterweight fight between Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Jorge Masvidal, and a heavyweight showdown pitting rising star Francis Ngannou against Andrei Arlovski. The main card airs at 5 p.m. on Fox, with the preliminary card at 2 p.m. on Fox Sports 1.

Pena certainly isn’t shying away from the possibility.

“I would love to be that person,” she said after open workouts Thursday. “I’d love to be that role model for these little girls that are looking up to me or even just looking for someone to look up to. I would love to fill that role as the face of women’s MMA. Absolutely.”

While Pena credits Rousey for how far she advanced the role of females in the sport, it’s Carano she consistently cites as an innovator.

“Gina was the pioneer of women’s MMA,” Pena said of the former Strikeforce champion turned actress. “She kind of put it on the map as far as being a beautiful woman that’s able to fight. I give her all the credit in the world. I’ve always looked up to her.”

In an ideal athletic landscape, the cosmetic aspect might not be so important. Pena said that’s not the case in the real world and knows it always will be part of who becomes popular, particularly for females in the male-dominated world of mixed martial arts.

Of course, getting the opportunity is just a part of the challenge. All of the other things can get people to watch, but Pena knows she has to perform once the bell rings.

That hasn’t been a problem for the 27-year-old native of Spokane, Washington. Since winning Season 18 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Pena has used her ultra-aggressive style to go unbeaten in the UFC. Her past two victories have come against tough competition in Jessica Eye and Cat Zingano.

Now she will face the division’s top contender in a bout with a lot of buzz and a likely title shot against Amanda Nunes on the line.

“I think one thing ‘TUF’ got me prepared for was the media and dealing with these kind of situations,” Pena said. “You’ve got to be a multi-tasker. Promoting the fight is part of the business. You’ve just got to suck it up and get used to this because this is the entertainment business after all, and I’m an entertainer as much as a fighter. It really doesn’t bother me being a main event. I can handle it. I’m a pressure type of person. It’s not a big deal.”

Pena and Shevchenko are as divergent in personality as they are in fight style. While Pena is a mauling wrestler and grappler, Shevchenko ruthlessly picks opponents apart with punches, elbows, kicks and knees.

A former Muay Thai world champion, Shevchenko surged in the rankings with a spectacular performance in a victory over Holly Holm in July.

While not referring to Pena specifically, the Soviet-born 28-year-old who now fights out of Peru made clear she prefers to let her performance speak for her.

“I’ve been in martial arts for more than 20 years,” Shevchenko said. “I’ve fought all kinds of opponents from quiet to really loud ones who speak too much. It doesn’t help them at all, because in the octagon, you only have two hands and two feet. I’m very comfortable in my skills and what I can do.”

The contrast in styles is perhaps best signified by how they discuss the potential showdown with Nunes that awaits the winner.

Nunes has said she would prefer to move up to challenge for the 145-pound title than to defend the belt against either Shevchenko or Pena.

Shevchenko said she will share her feelings on the matter should she win and Nunes declines the fight. Pena already has a speech prepared for her postfight interview should she win Saturday.

She gave a likely preview Thursday.

“I think there’s a lot of competition that Amanda has left at 135 before she tries to run to another division,” Pena said. “If I get through this fight, I’ll still be undefeated in the UFC. If I was Amanda, I’d want to clean out my own division first, and if there’s an undefeated girl in my division, I’d want to test myself against her.

“Being that Cat Zingano beat the brakes off Amanda Nunes, and I dominated Cat Zingano, I think it’s safe to say I can hang with anybody that fights at 135 pounds inside that octagon.”

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-277-8028. Follow @adamhilllvrj on Twitter.

Covering The Cage Videos
UFC 235 press conference highlights
UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and Kamaru Usman have a heated exchange and Ben Askren enjoys his time on the stage by interacting with UFC president Dana White.
UFC president Dana White talks UFC 235 and more
UFC president Dana White joined Heidi Fang and Adam Hill to discuss the UFC 235 card set for Las Vegas on Mar. 2 at the T-Mobile Arena and also spoke on Colby Covington and Khabib Nurmagomedov's and Conor McGregor's disciplinary measures given by the Nevada Athletic Commission. Full version available on Facebook at Review-Journal Sports
Tyron Woodley and Kamaru Usman Have Heated Exchange At UFC 235 Presser - VIDEO
UFC 235 opened with Jon Jones returning after his meeting at the Nevada Athletic commission, Tyron Woodley and Kamaru Usman arguing on stage and Ben Askren making his UFC debut.
NAC Chairman says it's time to tone down MMA smack talk ahead of fights
After announcing the fines and suspensions given to Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov for their involvement in a melee at UFC 229 in Las Vegas, Nevada Athletic Commission Chairman Anthony Marnell said it may be time to address "mouthy fighters" smack talk and conduct leading up to a fight.
Jones, NAC Chairman issue statements following Jones' licensing approval for UFC 235
The Nevada Athletic Commission issued UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones a conditional one-fight license to compete at UFC 235 taking place at the T-Mobile Arena on Mar. 2. Jones had to reapply for a license in Nevada after failing a drug test which led to UFC 232 being moved from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, California.
UFC donates $240,000 to Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada
UFC presents Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada with $240,000 donation and promises to grant more wishes as the partnership goes forward.
Benavidez on his new contract, future of the UFC flyweight division
UFC flyweight Joseph Benavidez, who is booked to fight Dustin Ortiz at UFC Fight Night 143 on ESPN Plus, discusses his role as an alternate for the title fight between T.J. Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo, his new 4-fight contract and the future of the 125-pound division.
Covering the Cage: Jones, Nunes win at UFC 232
Amanda Nunes defeats Cyborg in the women's featherweight division and Jon Jones returns to UFC as the light heavyweight champion. Covering the Cage host Heidi Fang and Adam Hill recap the UFC 232 main and co main events.
Las Vegas MMA fighter Joey Ruquet joins Copa Combate tournament
When Combate Americas' Copa Combate tournament takes place on Dec. 7, Las Vegas-based MMA fighter Joey Ruquet will step in for Gaston Reyno and compete for the $100,000 prize money in the 8-man, one night featherweight tournament.
Espino, Chiasson claim UFC contracts with wins at TUF 28 Finale
Juan Espino was crowned as the TUF heavyweight winner when he submitted Justin Frazier at the finale in Las Vegas and Macy Chiasson submitted Pannie Kianzad to become the TUF 28 women's featherweight winner.
Kamaru Usman excited for what's next after TUF 28 win
After taking a win over Rafael dos Anjos at the TUF 28 Finale, UFC welterweight Kamaru Usman says he can be ready for anything that comes next or a quick turnaround if it gets him closer to a title shot.
Dana White on what's next for Usman and the flyweight division
UFC president Dana White spoke with media after the TUF 28 Finale to discuss what's next for the flyweight division and the main event winner, UFC welterweight Kamaru Usman.
Dos Anjos and Usman TUF 28 media day
Rafael dos Anjos and Kamaru Usman talk about facing each other at the TUF 28 Finale at a media day leading up to the Nov. 30 contest. Their welterweight bout will serve as the main event.
News Headlines
Home Front Page Footer Listing